In the early days of the internet, long before Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter even existed, people looking to discuss things online went to Usenet, a pre-web message board that was a precursor to today's online forums.
Launched in 1980, Usenet was created by two Duke University students who set out to build a communication system using decentralized, local servers.
Thanks to Ontario-based systems architect Jozef Jarosciak, who added over 2 million of the oldest Usenet posts to the Usenet Archives this week, anyone can now look through huge amounts of old internet posts.
We delved through this treasure trove of conversation, including topics such as UFOs, fax machines, quaaludes, early discussions about climate change, electric cars, and artificial intelligence and present here our favorite hidden gems.
1. 'What is the Internet'
Before Tim Berners-Lee introduced the World Wide Web in 1990, the internet essentially started as a research tool funded by the U.S. Department of Defence, calledARPAnet, that was not widely available to the public.
In a foreshadowing of how dependant we are on the web today, in the early days of the internet, people went online to ask "what is the internet?"
As Mike Waters' 1988 post, titled 'What is the "internet"', shows, many at the time were still grappling with the definition of this newfangled thing called 'the Internet'.
2.'This is a test'
It's nice to see that back in 1986 computer and internet humor, as shown here in a Usenet discussion board, was already a thing, even if many wouldn't have followed at the time.
3. Desperate to see the landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis
Another remnant of a bygone era, Patrick R. Jones here discusses how much he would love to see the landing of Atlantis, part of NASA's now-decommissioned Space Shuttle fleet.
4. Playing jingle bells on a touch-tone phone
Was this a form of procrastination in the late 80s? One user asks if anyone knows how to play jingle bells on a touch-tone telephone, and even mentions that there was a telephone songbook published a few years before.
For those much too young to know, the touch-tone telephone, or push-button telephone, came after the rotary dial and was characterized by each of its number buttons making a sound when pushed — such as in this clip of Homer Simpson dialing the phone.
5. VR discussed as an art instrument in 1990
We've been writing about the potential of virtual reality (VR) for years, but Bruce Cohen here has us beat. Cohen wrote an impressive post on Usenet, in 1990, about the potential that VR has for art as an instrument, as well as a medium.
6. 'I'm fairly new to the electronic mail system'
In a message titled, "Bouncy, Bouncy, Bouncy," this user humorously asks for help with their bouncing mail at the same time as saying they are new to "the electronic mail system."
7. Make babies instead of artificial intelligence
"It may be a naive idea," Mauro Cicognini says at the start of his Usenet post. And, well, it's best just to read the whole thing yourself.
To summarize, in 1991 Cicognini believed that artificial intelligence will never surpass human intelligence and that it is better to simply "make babies," because it will "always be less expensive to train a human being."
8. Discussing on-demand movies long before they were a thing
Here's someone who sounds like they might have been onto a billion-dollar idea in 1991 — a few years before Netflix was founded in 1997.
9. What's the price of that fax machine?
Remember when fax machines were a thing? If not, thank your lucky stars because you're simply too young.
It is perhaps surprising today to see that one other messager in this thread quotes the price of $699 for one of the primitive scan and print messaging machines.
10. Looking for a quaalude substitute
Anyone who has seen Martin Scorcese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" will remember that famous scene where Leonardo DiCaprio's character is so off his face on the recreational drug quaalude that he can no longer move his legs.
Due to the abuse of the drug, it stopped being produced in the 1980s after being made illegal by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in the U.S. Hence the above poster looking for an alternative in 1990.
11. 'I need a telephone ring detector chip'
This user put the 'smart' in smartphone when mobile phones still looked like a brick, or a suitcase, you'd rather not have to carry around.
12. Cars and helmet wearers in '83
In the U.S., states didn't start to adopt laws on wearing bicycle helmets while riding on the road until 1987. Those laws couldn't come soon enough for this poster, writing in 1983.
13. The 'Green Steam Car'
While there are many transportation ideas over the years that never materialized but we would have loved to have seen developed, some ideas are better off simply being lost to time. This is one of those ideas.
As another poster in the thread replied to 'Van Chocstraw', "have you any idea how inefficient a classic steam engine is and how much smoke it makes?"
14. 'How are deniers going to hide the decline?'
While this post, written in 2010, is more recent, it nevertheless says something about what is happening today and how little has changed in a decade.
15. Hey everyone, I have an Amiga arcade machine
We wouldn't be surprised if this gamer is loving the internet in 2020.
16. 'Turing test, what's the point?'
In another post about artificial intelligence, Michael Thomas here questions whether Alan Turing might have been "incorrect in his analysis of future computer technology" and whether the 'Turing test' might be outdated in 1990.
17. Exposure to ozone in the office
In 2020, being worried about exposure to a damaging invisible threat that can hang in the air is a very real problem.
As this poster shows us, exposure to ozone from "modern machines" such as printers and copiers was a real problem in 1987. Interestingly, the Montreal Protocol was enacted in 1987 to combat the prevalence of ozone-damaging chemicals in household and office products.
We tip our hats to Jozef Jarosciak for managing to get this impressive archive of early-internet discussions online. We could spend way too much time reading people's thoughts about the future and comparing them to the past.